Sutzkever Essential Prose: Reading Resources

Sutzkever Essential Prose: A 2022 Great Jewish Books Club Selection

At the end of his prose poem “The Ring,” Avrom Sutzkever describes the experience of creating a new poem. “In that minute it happens,” he writes. “The disappeared poem comes to me in reality, naked and bloodied, but with a golden ring of love, smiling through tears.” 

Those words might describe much of Sutzkever’s writing, as well as his own life. From his prewar participation in the Yung-vilne (Young Vilna) literary group to his long postwar career as a poet, editor, and champion of Yiddish in the State of Israel, Sutzkever earned a reputation as one of the twentieth century’s greatest Yiddish writers. Over the course of his life he received numerous literary awards and prizes, including the Itzik Manger Prize and the Israel Prize for Yiddish Literature. In 1984, in a review of a book by David G. Roskies, the New York Times dubbed him “the greatest poet of the Holocaust.” 

Born in 1913 in what is now Smarhon, Belarus, Sutzkever spent his youngest years in Omsk, Siberia, where he lost his father, Hertz. After the war the family moved to Vilna, where he attended kheyder and later the Herzlia high school, where he was introduced to Russian poetry and began writing his own verse. In the early 1930s he published his first works in the literary journal of the scouting organization Bin (Bee) and became a member of the Yung-vilne along with Shmerke Kaczerginski, Chaim Grade, and Leyzer Volf.  

In 1941, after the Nazi invasion of Lithuania, Sutzkever was sent to the Vilna Ghetto, where he became part of the legendary Paper Brigade, a group that hid and saved many of the city’s Jewish literary treasures. In 1943 Sutzkever and his wife, Freydke, along with Kaczerginski, escaped the ghetto and joined a group of partisans, eventually making their way to the Soviet Union. Immediately following the war he published two volumes about his experiences in the Vilna Ghetto: Fun Vilner geto (From the Vilna Ghetto) and Lider fun geto (Poems of the Ghetto). He also served as a witness at the Nuremberg Trials and two years later immigrated to Palestine. 

By that time, Sutzkever was one of Yiddish poetry’s leading voices. His first volume of poetry, Lider (Songs), had appeared in 1937 and his second, Valdiks (Of the Forest), in 1940. In 1943 he wrote a narrative poem titled “Kol Nidre,” which attracted the attention of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in Moscow and prompted them to petition for his rescue from occupied Lithuania. And in Israel he emerged as a central figure in the Yiddish culture of the new country, both through his poetry and through the Yiddish journal Di goldene keyt (The Golden Chain), which he edited until its closing, in 1995. 

Although best known as a writer of verse, Sutzkever also wrote and published several collections of prose poetry. These works, which he labeled “short descriptions,” straddle the line between poetry and prose, short story and imagistic collage. Though a few of these pieces were previously translated, most of Sutzkever’s work in this genre remained unavailable outside of the original Yiddish. With Sutzkever Essential Prose, translator Zackary Sholem Berger has made the bulk of these writings available to an English-reading audience for the first time. 

Q&A with Translator Zackary Sholem Berger 

Yiddish Book Center: What drew you to translating Sutzkever, and to this material specifically? 

Zackary Sholem Berger: When I began reading and writing Yiddish poetry, in my twenties, I was drawn to Sutzkever by notions of cultural prestige but also because his philosophical yearnings and virtuoso rhymes and range of techniques, along with his personal history, really came together for me. 

I’ve been translating Sutzkever’s lyric poetry for a while, but translating these pieces was an interesting challenge. Then the [Yiddish Book Center’s] translation fellowship came along in 2013, and that pushed me to translate the whole thing and make it a book. 

A few of these pieces have been translated before. Were you influenced by other translations? How are yours different? 

I did not look at any other translations because I wanted to do it in my own voice and with my own approach. So I can’t speak to the differences. But I can say that Sutzkever is one of those people who can be translated over and over again with benefit. 

How did you try to balance the prose aspects of these pieces against the poetic? 

Very often I was translating in poetic mode, trying to capture the sound and emotion and resonance and provocativeness. But then there are the prose requirements. These miniatures all have some sort of narrative coherence, so they have to cohere and be comprehensible. Translating prose has different requirements than translating poetry, so I hope I squared the circle for both of those genres. 

Sutzkever is often categorized as a poet of the Holocaust. How do you think these pieces contribute to that understanding, or expand beyond it? 

I think it really depends on what people mean by “Holocaust literature.” This is not historical fiction or a dramatization of history. These are not named figures. I think this is literature in the wake of the Holocaust, and you can understand it as part of Holocaust literature, but I think it would be a mistake to confine it to that understanding. And I think a lot of it could be said to have to do with Sutzkever’s personal peregrinations. It’s a book of wanderings among the living and the dead. So it intersects many realms. 

How do you think this book will contribute to the public appreciation and academic study of Sutzkever’s work? 

There really needs to be a critical biography of Sutzkever. Like any author he needs to be assessed on his own critical biographical terms and not just as a Yiddish author or Holocaust author. If this pushes someone to do that it would be nice. The more realistic expectation is that this fills out the picture. He wasn’t just a poet, but also a prose poet. 

In many ways these are challenging pieces, and it’s a challenging book to read. What kind of feedback have you gotten from readers? 

I think people like it. The people I know that know Sutzkever have been favorably impressed by it. And I have two friends who don’t know much about Yiddish literature, but they know me and they got the book and really loved it. That’s a nonrepresentative sample, but I think it might shake up or change people’s assumptions about Yiddish literature. And if people have critical, nonestablishment takes on Sutzkever, I would love to hear from them. 

Sutzkever Essential Prose Web Resources

Listen to a recording of Sutzkever reading 13 of his poems (in Yiddish)

Watch the book launch event for Sutzkever Essential Prose with scholar Justin Cammy and translator Zackary Sholem Berger:

Read Sutzkever's books, in the original Yiddish, in the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library

Read a translation of Sutzkever’s poem “To a Friend”

Listen to an interview on The Shmooze podcast with translator Zackary Sholem Berger:

Read about Sutzkever’s testimony at the Nuremberg Trials

Read the New York Times obituary for Sutzkever

Watch a lecture by scholar Ruth Wisse on “Avrom Sutzkever: The Power in Poetry”:

Watch an oral history interview with Sutkever’s daughter, Mira (Mirele) Sutzkever

Listen to an event (in Yiddish) with Sutzkever at Montreal’s Jewish Public Library in 1968

Listen a recording of Sutzkever discussing his experiences in the Vilna Ghetto (in Yiddish with English subtitles):

Listen to an interview with scholar Justin Cammy about Sutzkever’s From the Vilna Ghetto to Nuremberg:

Four Questions

To get you started while you crack open the collection, here are four questions to keep in mind while you read.

  1. Sutzkever’s prose poems occupy an in-between genre. While reading them, did you think of them more as poetry or as short stories? Did you better enjoy the more poetic-type pieces, or those that were more like stories?
  2. How does Sutzkever compare to other Yiddish literature you may have read? Did his writing change your expectations or understanding of what Yiddish literature is or could be?
  3. The Holocaust is an unavoidable presence in many of these pieces but is only obliquely referenced. Did this book change your understanding of what Holocaust literature is or could be?
  4. Sutzkever is a master of poetic images. Are there any that stood out to you while reading?

Ezra Glinter